Answer: the thickness of a prison wall
That is how the former Labour Chancellor of the Exchequer in the UK, Denis Healey defined the two related practices but which have distinctly separate consequences. He was also tough on tax evasion and also said “It will squeeze the rich until the pips squeak.” The first quote in fact matches the general view on the contrasting level of permissibility of what others may call aggressive tax practices. Remember however that Mr. Healey made his statement decades ago. Internationally, things have changed since then and not only tax administrators but legislators and very importantly, the courts, certainly in the more advanced economies, are taking more direct action against aggressive tax practices.
It may in fact be due to Bush’s War on Terror targeting not only those who pulled the trigger or threw the bomb but those who financed those who pulled the trigger or threw the bomb. The evidence is that the coordinated and sustained efforts to contain domestic tax evaders and the tax haven jurisdictions that have for decades facilitated them are yielding significant results. As one international tax specialist wrote recently, “the seemingly endless game of cat and mouse seems to be shifting largely to the cat’s advantage.”
In 2008, Germany paid an informant for records taken illegally from a Liechtenstein bank, in an effort to track down German tax cheats including some of its international tennis stars. But it was the United States that has shaken the very foundation of Swiss bank secrecy – which essentially forbids access to information of or about the account of any person other than the account holder – when it demanded from the Swiss bank UBS the names of 52,000 account holders suspected of tax evasion. The Swiss initially refused but the tide had been turning against those “fiscal and moral termites who have been eating away at tax revenue bases throughout the world in an unprecedented fashion over the last thirty or so years.”
The Swiss blinked and now the Obama Administration is planning to go even further with the enactment of new legislation, the Stop Tax Haven Abuse Act – that is designed to better enable US authorities to obtain information about offshore trusts and accounts used by Americans to hide their income and assets from the Internal Revenue Service of the US. The position is that the US can access the information under the scores of Double Taxation Treaties which the US has with countries across the world or under what are called Tax Information Exchange Agreements such as the one it has with Guyana. In the alternative, the US simply threatens sanctions against those it considers uncooperative.
Tax evasion, tax avoidance and tax planning
It seems fairly simple to distinguish between tax evasion and tax avoidance. It is the difference between working outside the law and working within the law (though against its spirit). Tax evasion can and often is contrasted with tax avoidance, but also with tax planning/mitigation, and it is here that the issue becomes difficult. Tax evasion typically involves the non-payment of a tax that would properly be chargeable if the taxpayer made a full and true disclosure of income and allowable deductions. Common examples of tax evasion include a deliberate failure by a business to report the full amount of revenue received or the deliberate claiming of a deduction by a business for an expenditure it has neither incurred nor paid. There is no ambiguity about tax evasion – it is illegal and a crime under our laws. On the other hand, tax avoidance can be considered either as permissible or impermissible, although they are not that easy to distinguish.
Tax planning or tax mitigation can be traced back to a well-known and oft quoted case involving the Duke of Westminster in which the court ruled that “every man is entitled to order his affairs so that the tax attaching under the appropriate Acts is less than it otherwise would be”. One simple example of tax planning is where a business promoter makes his decision on the form of the entity on the basis of the applicable tax considerations. If the trader was to set up a company it would be taxed at 45% and be subject to Minimum Corporation Tax. On the other hand if he operates under his or a business name the profits all accrue to him and the trader would be taxed as an individual at the personal tax rate of 33 1/3%. Tax planning may also include the decision to lease or buy an asset which would have different tax consequences but both of which are entirely legal.
Where it becomes really difficult is in respect of “impermissible tax avoidance”, which refers to artificial or contrived arrangements, with little or no actual economic impact upon the taxpayer, and which are usually designed to manipulate or exploit perceived “loopholes” in the tax laws in order to achieve results that conflict with or defeat the intention of Parliament. In fact this is what section 74 of our Income Tax Act seems to address but uses the words “artificial” and “fictitious” and gives the Commissioner wide powers to disregard or set aside such transactions. In tax jargon our section 74 is a general anti-avoidance rule (GAAR) and is designed to protect the revenue base from erosion by “fiscal termites” that seem to have created a pandemic in our economy, much worse than any Swine Flu or AIDS. .
Since revenue collection is a primary function of any tax system, any systematic and widespread avoidance activity will clearly have an adverse impact on that function. But avoidance does more than this – it also significantly affects the efficiency and equity of tax systems by siphoning off resources from more productive ventures, redistributing the tax burden and threatening to undermine compliance. We seem not to care that the poor employees are burdened by high and unavoidable tax personal taxes and wrongly charged VAT, all for the benefit of the private sector entrepreneurs, a term that has come to include drug dealers, money launderers and tax dodgers.
Changing administrative approach
Across the major economies, national revenue authorities have been taking measures to identify and shut down perceived impermissible tax avoidance activities. Within the UK, Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs Anti-Avoidance Group co-ordinates anti-avoidance activity including litigation strategies in relation to avoidance. To counter tax avoidance, the Group deploys its resources where it considers the risk greatest and provides direction for the effective use of resource within other areas of HMRC. The approach is now a form of cooperation between the tax authorities and larger entities that is designed to bring about effective consultation, certainty and speedy resolution of tax issues. Changing from the old command style tax administration to a more co-operative approach, the authorities enter arrangements with the taxpayer whereby the latter would submit its tax strategy on a particular issue and have this cleared by the tax authorities in return for which it is saved the time and cost of revenue audits and litigation.
Another approach is increased cooperation among the tax authorities of various countries with the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) and the Joint International Tax Shelter Information Centre set up by Australia, Canada, the UK and the US being prime examples.
The tax authorities are also aware that much of the tax avoidance by the big companies is hatched and or blessed by their tax advisors.
They have therefore not been hesitant to go after the larger accounting firms that design and market packaged boutique packages sold under attractive but expensive labels including asset protection and the virtues of mainly offshore tax shelters.
Both corporate as well as high-net worth individuals seems to consider the risks associated with tax evasion as more than compensated for by the rewards.
The changing attitude of the courts
The Duke of Westminster case (1936) has long dominated the thinking of the courts and more recently they have propounded what is called the Ramsay principle (1982) under which the courts would examine transactions that seem to have no commercial purpose and ignore or set them aside as envisaged by section 74 of our Income Tax Act.
The Ramsay principle was seen as a separate theory of revenue law which said that tax laws must be interpreted very strictly in favour of the taxpayer. That principle appears to have ended in 2005 in a case that came before the House of Lords.
The latest case essentially ruled that tax provisions dealing with tax evasion should be given a purposive construction which could have wide effect since all anti-avoidance measures are designed to prevent tax evasion. But life will never be as simple as this and no doubt the courts will continue to be challenged by the creativity of tax advisors and dishonest taxpayers even as the nature of transactions become ever novel and complex even for tax administrations.
The Guyana scene
There does not appear to have been any reported case out of the Guyana courts addressing section 74. That is equally true of the region with one notable exception in Jamaica, involving a leading case on asset stripping, under similar anti-avoidance provisions.
On the other hand, there are some frequently used permissible tax planning strategies, none of which again appear to have reached the courts but this is because they have not been challenged by the Revenue Authority. Some of the more common strategies include the structuring of the business (corporate or individual); the efforts to take advantage of the differential tax rates applicable to companies (non-commercial company and therefore taxed at 35% or commercial and taxed at 45%); and transactions designed to benefit from low or no tax under some of the provisions under Double Taxation Treaties of which the Caricom Treaty is a prime example.
What seems more common is the rank tax evasion where income is blatantly ducked and the money laundered abroad under the permissive exchange control regime we enjoy and very often abuse.
Another is to charge all forms of personal expenses to the business and get full deductibility while yet another is the use of fake invoices which overstate the figures in the accounts and understate those given to the Customs, both of which are accepted unknowingly by the GRA. Businesses can generally count on finding a friendly accountant willing to sign off on their make believe financial statements that seem to get past just as easily, the tax authorities as well as the lending institutions.
Guyana is the only regional country that has a net property tax capturing the assets held here and abroad. The overseas assets are almost invariably overlooked by the GRA despite arrangements that allow for the exchange of information with the tax authorities of all our major trading partners. The Cambios seem custom-designed to facilitate such evasion while the country appears only willing to pretend that we have serious intentions about preventing money laundering.
One glaring example of how tax evasion takes place under the noses of those in administrative, political and professional positions is with respect to political donations. It is known that businesses contribute significantly to the elections war chest of the major political parties, sometimes more than they pay in taxes. Yet, none of this gets its way into the books. Is it just possible that some of these donors who are feted under the full glare of publicity actually pay more to the political parties than in taxes? Or is it that they consider that this gives them tax immunity?
Tax reform in our case has first to deal with tax evasion and administration. This government has been paying lip service to tax reform ever since it came to power seventeen years ago. Unless it thinks that imposing VAT on top of high personal tax rates is tax reform, it has done nothing and tax evasion is now worse than it has ever been. VAT has brought in immoral windfalls, reducing the incentive for reform which the Government has delegated to the National Competitiveness Strategy. So far, that body which is chaired by the President has shown no intention, appetite or capacity to deal with it. And the GRA is either overwhelmed by the level and scale of tax evasion or is not utilising the tools and deploying the resources at its disposal to deal with the crisis.